On Wednesday morning, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló sat beside Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky at one of the company’s swanky buildings in San Francisco. The two were announcing a partnership to bring more tourism to the island, where some residents are still without power and even without homes, following the ravages of Hurricane Maria in September. “One of the best ways to help an economy is to continue to send visitors there,” Chesky said.
Airbnb is just one stop on a whirlwind tour Rosselló is making to some of the most prominent companies in Silicon Valley, as he tries to take advantage of the bittersweet limelight that the Category 4 storm has put on the U.S. territory. Devastation also means a chance to reimagine things as the island rebuilds, and the 39-year-old is casting Puerto Rico as a “blank canvas” for innovators to come and experiment.
The leader of 3.4 million people is also pushing for a bigger investment: statehood. At Airbnb, he criticized what he sees as “two tiers of citizenship” and argued that statehood would super charge the island’s long struggling economy. “We need to ask ourselves, in the 21st century, if we are satisfied with the notion that this standard bearer for democracy has a colonial territory,” Rosselló said. “In our view, that needs to change.”
TIME sat down with the leader of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party — who also identifies as a Democrat — after the press conference to talk about how the recovery is going, why he’s courting Big Tech and whether Donald Trump has been a good president for Puerto Ricans.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Looking back on everything the federal government and Trump have done in the wake of Hurricane Maria, do you give it a 10 out of 10?
As I told the President himself, recoveries are evaluated as time goes along. There have been some things I’ve been very happy with and some things that I haven’t. I’ll give you examples of both. I’ve been very unsatisfied with the Army Corps of Engineers and their effort to rebuild the energy grid. I’ve been unsatisfied with some of the additional bureaucratic steps that have been added for Puerto Rico, particularly on the FEMA side. On other fronts, we’ve been working well with FEMA. I was also very satisfied in the emergency phase with the military’s involvement…. We’re all going to be evaluated on how this ends up.
So not quite a 10 out of 10.
I shy away from giving a number. I don’t tend to give grades. I used to do that when I was a professor. Not anymore.
How are people feeling in terms of getting their lives back together?
In the majority of cases, it’s already reaching normalcy. The school system opened. Businesses are opening. Tourism by June is expected to reach pre-Maria levels but probably even higher. One of the things that was always lagging behind was energy. Today, 98% of clients are being served. But that is the grand scheme of things. There are some places where people don’t have jobs and their homes haven’t been fixed. Even though it is smaller scale, about 22,000 clients still don’t have access to energy and there are some places where 40% of the municipality doesn’t have energy. That is a hard pill to swallow and we’ve been working as quickly as possible to mitigate that.
You mentioned that the profile of Puerto Rico has been raised because of the storm. It seems like a mixed bag as you try to draw tourists. Other regions like Napa saw many people cancel trips after high-profile wildfires, for example.
We didn’t choose the catastrophe, it came to us. Because of that, there’s a level of profile. Compared to Napa, a lot less people knew about Puerto Rico. In fact, polls show that prior to the storm about 25% of American citizens knew that we were American citizens. After all of the media coverage, about 85% know now. We need to use this as an opportunity to showcase Puerto Rico for what it is, what it has, what needs to be changed. Because prior to the storm, we didn’t have the political wherewithal and we didn’t have the bully pulpit. Now we at least have some of the bully pulpit.
Does it surprise you that such low numbers of Americans were aware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens?
Puerto Rico is a very delicate issue. It is sort of a geopolitical black hole. In the past, because there were so many issues – the United States has to deal with Russia, Iran – you could sort of put it into a second or third tier. Not a lot of people would fight about it, and we didn’t have the political structure — because we don’t have senators or congressmen — to put that idea out there. Now, after the storm, there is this awareness about Puerto Rico.
Was I surprised? No. We had measured it, and it was always very disappointing. Again, a majority are now aware. The follow up question is: Should they be treated equally? Or should we have this colonial territory system prevail in the 21st century? The way that Congress was designed is that issues are not attended to unless they are highly critical. I think it’s a critical question.
When you met with President Trump, did you speak to him about the statehood issue?
We spoke about it. I speak to everyone about it. He said he wasn’t going to touch upon those issues, that he was going to let the people of Puerto Rico decide. I just take what was in the Republican platform and the Democratic platform. When you read those statements, they’re very clear. On the Republican side, it says they will respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico if they so choose to become a state. What we need is a path forward for that to happen.
You have spoken before about mobilizing Puerto Ricans in the midterms, particularly because of the tax plan [that treats the island like a foreign competitor]. Are you still working on that?
I’m doing that. It’s not about being a Republican or Democrat, but if you are a friend or an opponent to the people of Puerto Rico. We have a platform. We have registration drives in some of the critical states. We can show that we have political force and influence on the national stage. What’s the objective right now? Time is really not our friend, so we’re really focusing on certain areas: Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, some districts in Texas and so forth.
What brings you to Silicon Valley?
My aspiration in this rebuilding process is that Puerto Rico can become a blank canvas for innovation. A lot of funds are going to come to Puerto Rico for the rebuilding, and it presents a unique opportunity to build smarter and get the best innovators in the world to come and showcase what they have to do – in areas of energy, transportation, overall technology infrastructure, the housing side. What we are doing over here is making sure all the stakeholders know that Puerto Rico is not only open for business but has this unique opportunity to showcase models that they might have on paper or a small scale.
If we leverage some of the opportunities – five years, ten years down the road – Puerto Rico could become a destination for the human cloud, as we’re calling it. In the future, it’s going to be even more clear that jobs are geographically independent and people are going to choose wherever they have a better quality of life. We want to make Puerto Rico that spot.
There’s been a lot of talk about tech companies based here working harder to create jobs elsewhere, to make sure other parts of the country aren’t left behind. Do you think they have a civic responsibility to think about other places?
I would say they do. Also on a pragmatic level, it benefits them — if you expand from just one place, adding diversity, adding a different mindset, having different world views, being able to tap into emerging thoughts and technologies from elsewhere. In my view, it can only add value.
As you go to these firms, if you’re trying to pitch Puerto Rico as an alternative to places like Colorado or Texas, what are your biggest challenges and advantages?
The biggest challenges are things like energy costs and reliability and the bureaucratic red tape the government has. I’ve declared war on both of them.… The major benefits are we have unique value propositions on the tax front. We have a highly skilled labor force on the high-end manufacturing side. And just the natural beauty of being in Puerto Rico and having it be a place for people to move, when companies set up base.
Besides the citizenship issue, what do you think people in the States most misunderstand about Puerto Rico?
The fact that it is a colonial territory.
The word colonial is jarring.
It is, but it’s the truth. It was a colonial territory for 400 years with Spain and for 100 years within the United States. What other word can you use for it?
A second thing is that a lot of Puerto Ricans are moving to the States. We’re U.S. citizens, so there are no visas. All we have to do is buy a plane ticket. There are now 5.6 million Puerto Ricans in the United States, which is almost double what we have back home.
Thirdly, the fact that even being a territory, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans are proud U.S. citizens. We serve in the U.S. military at the highest per capita rate in the nation. There are a lot of unknowns.
Do you feel like Trump has been a good president to Puerto Ricans so far?
I can only say what the President has done. He has always responded to our petitions. We got a historic amount of funding for the recovery. So in my capacity as governor, I have to call balls when they’re balls and strikes when they’re strikes, and I have to say he has responded to our petitions.
My concern is that sometimes within the structure of the federal government, those petitions don’t manifest and bureaucracy takes over. Other interests take over. And some of those don’t get fulfilled. But there is time to fix them, and my hope is that the President and folks in the administration will not put up additional obstacles for Puerto Rico, but actually help us achieve these aspirational goals I have defined.
We have a small window of opportunity and whatever we do in the next six months will define the Puerto Rico we have in the next 10 years.
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